A New Rice Revolution on the Way?

Get ready for Green Super Rice

The world appears to be on the threshold of another green revolution in
rice production as a result of an intensive, 12-year partnership between
the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and the
International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Called
"Green Super Rice," it is the result of a project begun in 1998,
involving the painstaking crossbreeding of more than 250 different
potential varieties and rice hybrids, according to Dr Jauhar Ali, a
senior scientist and regional project coordinator for the Development of
Green Super Rice at IRRI in Los Banos, south of Manila.

The
development of the process, Dr Ali said, is considered so significant
that Microsoft founder Bill Gates met personally with Zhi-Kang Li who
holds a dual position both with IRRI as Senior Molecular Geneticist and
as Chief Scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese
Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and, through the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation, presented the program with a US$18 million,
three-year grant to expand the benefits to Asia and Africa.

The
two institutions are seeking additional donors to be able to push the
rice to undeveloped corners of Africa and other continents to help stave
off the growing need for food across the planet.

The process
was developed by Zhi-Kang Li, It involves the efforts of hundreds of
researchers in dozens of countries across the world, seeking to isolate
the desirable traits from indigenous strains and then backcross breed
them to produce hardier varieties.

Particularly, Dr Ali said in a
telephone interview, the method of producing the new strains of rice is
as important, or perhaps even more so, than the strains of rice
themselves, because it holds out the hope of a scientific method of
increasing yields of other crops, making them hardier and more resistant
to disease and insects and cutting the use of fertilizers and
pesticides without resorting to genetic modification. Importantly, since
it was developed by public institutions, it is not subject to the
onerous conditions that major agri-chemical companies like Monsanto
place on farmers, including the need to buy new seeds every year.

The
development comes at a time when food security has become a major
political issue, not just in Asia but increasingly across the world as
the price of commodities skyrocket. Disastrous floods in Pakistan,
drought in Australia, fires and drought in Russia, all combined to spur
concern that the world could be on the brink of a food crisis
to rival that endured in 2007, when the price of rice shot from roughly
US$250 to US1,100 per ton before falling back to hover around US$500
today. Imbalances in the demand-supply chain and hoarding by national
governments have forced the World Food Program to initiate a number of
emergency projects to continue the delivery of food to the world’s poor.
Rice in particular faces problems from climate change.

It has
been a long, hard slog to come out with the concept of Green Super Rice,
Dr Ali said. It started in 1998 with the launch of an international
rice molecular breeding program originally involving more than 18
countries and 36 institutions. However, there was no funding to continue
the program and it ultimately died out in all of the countries and
institutions except for IRRI and the Chinese Academy.

Green Super
Rice does not involve genetic modification. Instead, it involves taking
hundreds of donor cultivars from dozens of different countries,
identifying significant variations in plant response to drought, global
warming and other problems, and "backcross" breeding – painstakingly
crossing a hybrid with one of its parents or with a plant genetically
like one of its parents, then screening the backcross bulk populations
after one or two backcrosses under severe abiotic and biotic stress
conditions to identify transgressive segregants that are doing better
than both parents and the checks.

This operation is done for all
the backcrosses originating from 46 recurrent parents and 500 donors --
a mini-core collection - and reconfirmed before further pooling them
across different traits by the use of molecular markers to improve rice
tolerance – for instance, drought, salinity, submergence, rice blast
fungus, bacterial leaf blight and the ability to out-compete weeds,
reducing the need for fertilizers.

"The idea is that now we have a
wider range of materials that can combat drought and submergence, we
now have lines that are tolerant to all known races of blast and
bacterial leaf blight at IRRI," Dr Ali said. "We have confirmed that we
are on the third round for testing."

The announcement comes on
the 50th anniversary of what has been called the original Green
Revolution, when IRRI, established by the Philippine government and the
Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, introduced IR8, the first "miracle
rice," as it was called then, to the world, at a time when India
especially was on the brink of mass starvation. IR8, a semi-dwarf
variety, yielded about 5 metric tons per hectare without fertilizer and
as much as 10 tons under optimal conditions – about 10 times the yield
of traditional rice.

IR8 was subject to kernel breakage and
other problems. But eventually, its successors revolutionized world food
production, driving down the price of rice by more than 50 percent and
turning India, Thailand and other countries into some of the world’s
most successful producers and exporters. The Philippines, where IR8 was
developed, became rice sufficient for several decades, with production
increasing from 3.76 million tons to 7.7 million in two decades, before
slipping into deficit again.

Rice is grown on some 142 million
hectares in Asia, feeding more than 4 billion people. A semi-aquatic
plant species that originated in tropical swamps, rice production
typically consumes two to three times as much water as do other cereals.
Thus water deficiency – drought – has been the single biggest limit in
rain-fed rice fields, with drought at the early stages of growth causing
delayed transplant or delayed germination. Drought at the reproductive
stage also slows growth, according to a variety of papers made available
by Dr Ali, resulting in low and unstable rice productivity. Also, IR8
yields have dropped by about 15 percent as hotter nights produced by
climate change impede growth, according to Dr Shaobing Peng, an IRRI research scientist.

IR8’s
successors used far more fertilizers and pesticides than conventional
strains, but produced substantially higher yields. The extensive
crossbreeding, which was developed by Zhi-Kang Li when he was a
researcher at IRRI before moving back to Beijing, was partly developed
as an effort to reduce the dependency of the new rice strains on
fertilizers and pesticides. It appears to be succeeding.

In one
study, for instance, researchers backcross bred three recurrent elite
rice lines and 203 diverse donors, representing a significant portion of
the entire genetic diversity of the primary gene pool of rice over six
years to improve tolerances to salinity, submergence, zinc deficiency,
resistance to brown plant hopper and other problems.

Such
efforts are coming under an umbrella organization called the Global Rice
Science Partnership, under the acronym GRiSP, launched last November at
the third International Rice Congress in Vietnam, which seeks to enable
the world to coordinate its approach to rice science so that agencies
can pool their resources, apply their expertise and collaborate in the
delivery of the improved strains to poor rice farmers across the world.
GRiSP is looking for the funds to expand into seven countries across
Asia and seven in Africa. Some 260 people have been trained from public
and private centers, including in Africa, on the use of the Green Super
Rice breeding and seed production technology.

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